Vocals In Perfect Harmony

I dig vocals. Great vocals. Especially multi-part harmony singing. Big time! As some visitors of the blog know, that’s why I sometimes can get a bit impatient when it comes to instrumentals. Don’t get me wrong, listing to such music can be very enjoyable. But after a while, I tend to start missing vocals. This gave me the idea to put together a post about tunes featuring great harmony singing.

Admittedly, this is a somewhat random list. I didn’t want to overthink it. Let’s kick it off with The Beach Boys. While I generally wouldn’t call myself a huge fan of their music, much of which sounds quite repetitive to my ears, especially their early tunes, I’ve always loved how these guys could harmonize. One example I like in particular is In My Room. Credited to music genius Brian Wilson and Gary Usher, an early outside collaborator, the track was included on the band’s third studio album Surfer Girl from September 1963. It also appeared separately as a single in October that year.

One of the first bands that comes to my mind when thinking about harmony vocals are Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Boy, when they get into it, they sound like they came from some other planet. Here’s Carry On, the opener to CSNY’s amazing second studio record Déjà Vu. Stephen Stills wrote this song. Harmony singing doesn’t get much better than that, in my humble opinion!

Perhaps the next choice may surprise you: Huey Lewis and the News. Say what? While undoubtedly that band primarily was known for slick pop rock and hits like I Want A Drug and The Power Of Love, these guys could also sing. Don’t believe me? Check out their a cappella version of It’s Alright  – and, yes, have a good time! The song was first recorded in 1963 by The Impressions and written by the great Curtis Mayfield. Huey Lewis and the News recorded their a cappella cover in 1993 for a tribute album to Mayfield titled People Get Ready: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield. No matter how you feel about Lewis, this take is just awesome!

Speaking of Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions, why don’t we throw in one of their other tunes and a clip of them performing it: People Get Ready. I’ve said it before and I’m not ashamed to say it again, sometimes music really moves me. And, yes, it can bring me to tears, depending on my mood. This is one of these tunes, which was the title tack of the band’s fourth studio album released in February 1965. It’s another composition by Mayfield.

A band I dig for both their music and their singing are the Eagles. One of the best illustrations of their vocal power I can think of is Seven Bridges Road. What I hadn’t known until now is that it’s not an Eagles tune, which for some reason I had always assumed. Nope, it was actually written by American country singer Steve Young in 1969. He also recorded it that year for his debut album Rock Salt & Nails. The Eagles version, which became the most popular cover of the song, was inspired by Iain Matthews’ take of the tune he recorded for his 1973 album Valley Hi. I realize, it’s a bit of a convoluted background story, but you have to give credit where credit is due. This finally brings me to the Eagles’ cover, which they recorded for their Eagles Live album from November 1980. It just sounds breathtaking!

If you looked at the image on top of the post, you already may guess what’s coming next – and last: The Temptations. I think to say that harmony singing doesn’t get better than that is not an overstatement. Their multi-part harmonies ranging from very low to very high are simply insane. Here’s Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).  And, no, this is not an illusion, though it sounds heavenly – is that a real word? In any case, co-written by Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and produced by Whitfield, the song first appeared as a single in January 1971. The tune was also included on the The Temptations’ 14th studio album Sky’s The Limit from April 1971. It became their third no. 1 in the U.S.

I realize there are many more songs I could have included. Feel free to let me know which tunes featuring harmony singing you like.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

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What I’ve Been Listening To: Katrina And The Waves/Katrina And The Waves

Now here’s a blast from the past! The other day while driving in the car with my wife who likes ’80s music big time, we listened to some sampler of tunes from that decade. One of the songs was Walking On Sunshine, which became a huge hit for Katrina and The Waves in 1985. Unlike some of that sampler’s other tunes I dug at the time but now not so much, I thought Walking On Sunshine still sounds like a perfect summer song. This made me revisit the band’s album on which the tune appeared and realize I also still like most of the other tracks.

According to Wikipedia, Katrina and the Waves were a British-American band that emerged from a pop cover group called Mama’s Cookin’. Founded in 1978, that band from Feltwell, England featured American guitarist and vocalist Katrina Leskanich and Vince de la Cruz (vocals, lead guitar). In late 1980, Alex Cooper joined on drums. He brought in guitarist Kimberley Rew. Rounding out the five-piece was Bob Jaskins on bass. Subsequently, the band renamed themselves The Waves before finally becoming  Katrina and The Waves in August 1982.

Katrina and The Waves Poster
Katrina and The Waves in the ’80s (from left): Alex Cooper, Katrina Leskanich, Vince de la Cruz and Kimberley Rew

In early 1983, the band recorded their self-financed debut album Walking On Sunshine. Eventually, they got a deal with Canadian label Attic Records, which released the record in Canada only. The sophomore Katrina and The Waves 2 appeared in 1984, also in Canada only. The following year, the band signed an international deal with Capitol Records and recorded their third album. Titled Katrina and The Waves, it became their breakthrough, fueled by the single Walking On Sunshine. Interestingly, all tracks on that album were re-recorded, remixed or overdubbed tunes from the band’s two previous Canadian albums. Time for some music!

Let’s kick it off with the nice opener Red Wine And Whisky. Like all except two of the 10 tracks, the tune was written by Rew.

Here’s the excellent Cry For Me. I dig the nice soulful vibe and Leskanich’s strong lead vocals.

Next up, the above noted Walking On Sunshine. You could not switch on the radio in Germany at the time and not hear that tune. Though according to Wikipedia, it was more successful in other countries, especially in Ireland, Canada, U.K. and the U.S. where it reached no. 2, 3, 8 and 9, respectively on the corresponding singles charts. In Germany, it peaked at no. 28.

The last track I’d like to call out is the closer The Game Of Love. The tune features some nice Chuck Berry style guitar, as well as great brass work by Irish saxophonist John Earle.

While Katrina and The Waves continued to release six additional records through the remainder of the ’80s and most of the ’90s, they couldn’t repeat the success of the above album. In 1997, the band scored another hit single with Love Shine A Light, after they won the Eurovision Song Contest with it the same year. Let’s just say it’s quite different from the previously featured tunes. After the band broke up in 1999, Leskanich launched a solo career and has released various albums since then. Apparently, Rew also continued to write, record and release music.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Jontavious Willis/Spectacular Class

I’ve said it before and I say it again. While the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon are gone and Buddy Guy is one of a handful of last men standing from the old guard, the blues is alive and well. It’s particularly encouraging to see young artists embrace it. Perhaps the most compelling example I know is 22-year-old Jontavious Willis. None other than Taj Mahal has called him “Wunderkind.” Recently, he executive-produced the young bluesman’s sophomore album Spectacular Class, which appeared in April this year.

In some regards, the story of Willis, who is from Greenville, Ga., mirrors that of other great blues artists. The church and a key event determined his path. According to his website, Willis grew up singing gospel music with his grandfather at a local Baptist house of worship. Then, as a 14-year-old, he saw Muddy Waters on the tube. In the old times, it would have been television, but this is the 21 Century, so it was actually YouTube. Apparently, Willis was instantly hooked and knew that’s the music he wanted to play – I just love these types of stories!

Jontavious Willis and Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal with his Wonderboy, the Wunderkind

I’m not sure how Willis and Taj Mahal found each other. Apparently, Mahal asked Willis to play on stage with him in 2015. Then I guess he became a mentor. “I had an opportunity to have him grace my stage when I came to Atlanta,” said Mahal. “He had a thunderous response from the audience. It was just so great. I’m very, very particular and very private about my stage so – and if somebody is on it giving the full run to go, you know that they must be able do whatever it is that they say they can do, and I say that he can do it and more.”

In 2016, Willis released his debut album Blues Metamorphosis. The following year, he opened up select gigs for Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ during their TajMo tour. That’s were I first heard about Willis and actually saw him.  As you can read here, I was really impressed what this young man who performed solo got out of his acoustic guitar. Fast-forward to the presence and Spectacular Class, which by the way is not some overly confident statement by the artist about his music, though it actually is outstanding, in my humble opinion. Instead it refers to a line in one of the songs called Take Me To The Country: …The folks in the country don’t live too fast got good mannerism and spectacular class

Time to get to some of that spectacular music! Here’s the opener Low Down Ways. Don’t you agree this sounds awesome and certainly not like some 22-year-old kid? It does remind me a little bit of Keb’ Mo’, who served as the record’s producer and also plays guitar on several tracks including this one. By the way, all songs on the album were written by Willis.

In the second track Willis asks the question The Blues Is Dead? But he doesn’t waste much time to offer his perspective: …The blues ain’t going nowhere, gonna be here for a great long time/As long as folks got situations and problems on their mind… According to this upbeat review from Rock and Blues Muse, the tune in addition to Willis on lead vocals and slide guitar features Phil Madera on piano and Andrew Alli on harp. Apart from Mo’ (electric guitar), other musicians on the album include Martin Lynds and Thaddeus Witherspoon on drums, as well as bassist Eric Ramey – clearly, all top-notch craftsmen!

Daddy’s Dough is a delta blues type of tune that nicely showcases Willis’ abilities on acoustic guitar, with nice harp fill-ins by Alli. Dig the groove on this one!

Next up, the above mentioned Take Me To The Country. This is the type of country blues Willis is oftentimes associated with and another nice example of his acoustic guitar chops – just great! Here’s a nice video showing Willis in action. Check out the great fingerpicking!

The last track I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer The World Is In A Tangle. Here’s the official video – some killer guitar, banjo and mandolin work on this tune! Sadly, the lyrics capture how I sometimes feel about present day America: The world’s in a tangle it’s time to make a change/I’m gonna move away and change my name/I said the world’s in a tangle what’s going on/I’m going to a foreign land and make it my home

Here’s how Willis describes his sound and approach to the blues: “My instrument sound is simple; my voice is what I put on the forefront. I feel that’s what the blues is about. When you start focusing on your instrument more than vocals you are forgetting the purpose of the blues, which is to tell a story.”

Given Taj Mahal’s important role in Willis’ career thus far, it feels appropriate to quote him again: “Jontavious Willis. That’s my Wonderboy, the Wunderkind. He’s a great new voice of the 21st Century in the acoustic blues. I just love the way he plays. He has really just delightful timing and a real voice for the music because he was raised in the tradition and the culture. It’s just wonderful to hear him sing. The way he tunes his guitar is just amazing. There’s not a bluesman alive that could pick his instrument up and play it. You’d have to sit there for a good while to figure those tunings out.” High but well-deserved praise from a living blues legend!

Willis is currently on the road in the U.S., with a few gigs overseas in Switzerland, Denmark and Norway scheduled between August 29 and September 7. On some of his dates later this year, he is playing with Keb’ Mo’, e.g., Charlotte, N.C. (Sep 18), Oklahoma City (Sep 22) and Fort Collins, Colo. (Sep 26) – should be an awesome show! The full schedule is here.

Sources: Jontavious Willis website, Rock and Blues Muse, YouTube

Clips & Pix: David Bowie/Space Oddity

While I wouldn’t call myself an all-out science enthusiast, I just can’t help but feeling a sense of excitement about the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. Since the moon landing happened on July 20 five decades ago, which is kind of mind-boggling, it felt appropriate to post a clip that is related to space and space exploration. The first music artist coming to mind in this context is David Bowie, who clearly seemed to be fascinated by space.

Written by Bowie, Space Oddity was first released as a single on July 11, 1969, i.e., nine days prior to the moon landing. It also became the opening track of Bowie’s eponymous sophomore album that appeared in November of the same year. In 1972, it was reissued by RCA Records as Space Oddity – presumably after some clever marketing person there decided the new title would fuel sales, given the success of the song. Reissues in 2009 and 2015 reverted to the original title David Bowie.

Based on the chiron in the beginning of the clip, the above footage was taken from a live appearance of Bowie and his band on the American late-night TV music variety show The Midnight Special. The show premiered in August 1972 as a special on NBC and ran as a regular series from February 1973 until May 1981. Given Bowie’s looks, it’s safe to assume he was an early guest on the program.

Space Oddity, by the way, had nothing to do with the moon landing but instead was inspired by the 1968 Stanley Kubrick picture 2001: A Space Odyssey. Songfacts quotes Bowie from a 2003 interview with Performing Songwriter magazine: “In England, it was always presumed that it was written about the space landing, because it kind of came to prominence around the same time. But it actually wasn’t. It was written because of going to see the film 2001, which I found amazing. I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing. ”

Bowie added, “It was picked up by the British television, and used as the background music for the landing itself. I’m sure they really weren’t listening to the lyric at all (laughs). It wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing. Of course, I was overjoyed that they did. Obviously, some BBC official said, ‘Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great.’ ‘Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.’ Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that.” You just gotta love Bowie’s wit.

Well, I suppose most folks tend to pay more attention to the music than the lyrics. Perhaps the best example I can think of is Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A., which was widely misunderstood as being an anthem and shamelessly misused by a politician. In reality, of course, it was highly critical of the treatment of veterans returning home from war, which sadly remains a serious issue to this day.

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, YouTube

Clips And Pix: Paul McCartney In L.A. With A Little Help From Some Friends

I just spotted a Rolling Stone piece about Paul McCartney ending his Freshen Up tour at Los Angeles’ Dodgers Stadium last night, which includes some cool footage I simply couldn’t resist sharing. Not only does 77-year-old Sir Paul look in admirable shape, but he also got a little help from some great friends.

First up: Sir Richard Starkey, who just turned 79 years old. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m the first to emphasize that age doesn’t need to be a limiting factor when it comes to music and many other things. Still, you just can’t escape but feel amazed watching these two guys close to 50 years after the split-up of The Beatles: Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) and Helter Skelter. What a triumph!

But wait, there is more. A Paul McCartney show ain’t over until, well, the end. So here it is: Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End. Watch what happens at around 3 minutes and 48 seconds into the closing medley from Abbey Road. Undoubtedly, life’s been good for that audience last night. How friggin’ cool!

Sources: Rolling Stone, YouTube

 

Southern Avenue Come In Hot In Asbury Park

Memphis soul, blues and R&B band delivers energetic set at Wonder Bar

Southern Avenue weren’t kidding when they posted on Facebook yesterday, “our show at Jams On The Sand in Asbury Park, NJ has been moved indoors due to tonight’s forecast of severe thunderstorms. We’re still coming in hot though!” The five-piece band from Memphis, Tenn., which blends traditional southern soul and blues with more contemporary R&B, is one of the few bright stars I know in today’s music world, a world I generally find uninspiring. So I was really excited to get the opportunity to see them for the second time last evening.

Initially, Southern Avenue were scheduled to play at Jams On The Sand, a weekly free open air concert series held in Asbury Park during the summer. But the weather gods weren’t kind, and it was great the organizers managed to move the event inside to The Wonder Bar, a well-known local performance venue. While the circumstances were unfortunate and likely decreased attendance, they may well have been a blessing in disguise from a performance perspective. The band had incredible energy and blew the roof off the place. My ears were still ringing this morning!

Southern Avenue_Keep On Press Photo
Southern Avenue (from left): Tierinii Jackson, Jeremy Powell, Gage Markey, Tikyra Jackson and Ori Naftaly

More frequent visitors of the blog likely know that I have covered Southern Avenue on various occasions since I started paying attention to them about two years ago, for example here, here and and most recently here. Therefore, instead of recapping band’s history and their members yet another time, let’s get to the action right away!

Southern Avenue’s set included a mix of tunes from their two studio albums they have released to date and some covers. Here’s a nice funky song off their most recent record Keep On from May 2019, which is called Switchup. Co-written by guitarist Ori Naftaly and lead vocalist Tierinii Jackson, it’s got a cool vibe that reminds me of Commodores.

Most of the songs the band performed were upbeat tunes, with Tierinii displaying an amazing amount of energy, seemingly feeding off the enthusiastic crowd. Every now and then, they slowed things down a bit, such as with It’s Gonna Be Alright, a tune that appeared on their eponymous debut album from February 2017. It certainly was alright!

Here’s another fun track from Keep On: Jive, which was co-written by Ori, Tierinii and her sister Tikyra Jackson who is the band’s drummer. It’s got a great driving beat and nice instrumental parts that in addition to Ori and Tikyra also feature keyboarder Jeremy Powell and bassist Gage Markey.

Next up: A cool bluesy jam take of The Beatles’ 1969 song Come Together, which blends into Keep On, the title track from Southern Avenue’s latest album. That track is credited to Ori, Tierinii and producer Johnny Black.

The last tune I’d like to call out is Southern Avenue’s usual concert closer Don’t Give Up and, it seems to me, is their signature song. Another track from their eponymous debut album, the powerful tune is one of Tierinii’s highlights, who is not only an incredible vocalist but also a compelling front woman.

In addition to being talented musicians and songwriters, Southern Avenue’s members are nice, approachable and down-to-earth people. Last night, prior to the gig, I chatted for a while with keyboarder Jeremy about their current tour and latest album – such a nice guy! I also ran into Tierinii who spontaneously gave me a hug after mentioning that I had seen them previously in New York last year.

Southern Avenue are a fantastic live band. If anything, their extensive touring has made them even better than the band I saw last August. In addition to touring the U.S. and Canada, they also do gigs in Europe. In fact, they just recently returned from a series of dates spanning various European countries, including England, France and Germany, among others. Tonight, they are playing a blues festival in Nescopeck, Pa. Upcoming gigs include Ottawa, Canada (Jul 13); Scranton, Pa. (Jul 26); Edmonton, Canada (Jul 28); and Mad Creek, CO (Jul 31). The full schedule is here.

Sources: Southern Avenue Facebook page and website; YouTube